Changes of heart

“There is nothing wrong with changing one’s opinion… switching from the right to the left of the political spectrum, and vice versa, is legitimate — until one reaches the age of forty, that is. After sixty, it starts looking clownish and dodgy”
Italian journalist and commentator Indro Montanelli

Many among the most prominent members of the right-wing party currently in charge of governing Italy have a left-wing political past. Some are former members of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and others even of smaller parties or associations that would position themselves at the left of the PCI. As they warm up to, or wholeheartedly embrace the cornerstones of capitalism (free enterprise, progressive elimination of the welfare state, privatization of services etc.), these people find themselves in high demand as editorialists, political commentators, TV hosts (makes no difference of which television or newspapers, as all Italian media are owned by the same person, who happens to be the head of the government).
Some of them are by far the harshest critics of progressive, socialist ideas, and of those who still advocate them, and rank among the most outspoken and bluntest revisionists.

There exists also a moderate version of this phenomenon, wherein leftist leaders, whose ascension to the helm of their movements was largely due to their progressive, radical and often combative stands on the issues, remain nominally on the left but practically make a turn toward the center. In their rhetoric, they appeal to the base to abandon “extreme” positions (I am talking, e.g., revolutionary stuff like free universal health care — crazy, eh ?), and accept that “mistakes were made”; they urge their followers to “come to terms with a changed world”, become more conciliatory with their conservative opponents; they largely water down the political content of their movement, all in the name of “modernizing” it. They call “dinosaurs”, and “stupid”, those who resist. And of course, they remain at the leadership, even as they de facto renege their past.

Conventional wisdom has it that these persons derive intellectual authority from the very fact that they started out on one side but migrated toward the other [0]. Right-wing leaders like to put on display these repented prodigal sons, humbled by experience and capable of recognizing the “mistakes” made in their youths.
This is doubtless due to the great suggestive power that conversion has on our minds. Anyone who converts must have “seen the light” at some point, experienced what most of us do not experience in our lifetime. Converts are thus perceived as credible peddlers of conservative ideology. For example, they can be seen as the voice of reason, as they remind younger generations, eager to embrace progressive stances, that they themselves once shared their ideals but eventually came around to see them as “so wrong”, ill-advised and misguided.
Paradoxically, for said individuals having been “so wrong” in the past and making no bones about it, constitutes a qualification, lends them credibility, and in fact it is seen as their best asset. Now, is this fair ? Does it even make sense ? Was not there a time, not so long ago, when past mistakes, while certainly forgiven, were taken as an indication of poor judgment and scarce dependability ? Since when being old and admitting to have been “so wrong” in the past, are the traits of a visionary ?

Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect anyone capable of admitting and owning up to a past mistake, and insisting with defending the indefensible in the name of consistency is the last thing I wish to advocate. But from that, to being conferred an aura of wisdom and farsightedness, there seems to be a bit of a leap. In all walks of life with which I am familiar, people admitting to mistakes, especially so catastrophic to prompt calls for a wholesale dismissal of positions long held as core tenets, do not get to retain their positions of privilege or leadership.
I doubt if a CEO facing the impatient shareholders of a company whose fortunes have gone south under his/her leadership, could successfully plea for their renewed faith based on the recognition of “fundamental mistakes” made in the past, and the resolve to turn things around by essentially adopting a strategy diametrically opposite to that with which (s)he had started.
In the sciences, people change their mind all the time in the light of new, compelling experimental evidence; I can certainly imagine a long time, leading proponent of a theory proven wrong, embracing a more successful, competing theory, but not becoming its most recognized advocate, that role being reserved for someone who early on saw the merit of that theory.
By the same token, should political leaders recognizing fundamental errors in the strategy adopted by their parties under their leadership not just step aside, if nothing else to give a chance to someone else to make other, different mistakes ? Instead of gravely sentencing that “socialism is over”, something that many of these people may not have quite the intellectual stature to assert, why can they not be content with the much more modest and accurate “my political career is over” ?
I don’t know, maybe it’s me, but there is something cheap about the pretense that a political past, an important piece of someone’s cultural and personal biography, can be simply wiped out, the clock reset, and one may just recycle oneself as another political animal, as if past events were merely a… rehearsal — oops, sorry, wrong script …. did not really mean any of that…

I have to confess it, I tend to have a cautious distrust of anyone claiming to have had a “change of heart”, and as a result making a switch after a decade or more of activism on the other side. I am cynical, and all too often I smell opportunism.
Of course, anyone engaged in political activity, leaning ideologically toward one part or another of the spectrum, can be expected to have concrete ideas on how to (re)organize our society. Those ideas may be implemented one day, and they may turn out not to be so good after all, clearly implying that they should be discarded and replaced with new, better ideas to try out next. However, I continue to believe that political convictions should ultimately reflect personal, fundamental values. While political strategies and visions can surely change with time, I cannot imagine values changing radically in the course of one’s existence, much less several times.


[0] I am focusing here on individuals starting out on the left and ending up on the right, or at least at the center. The opposite might occur too, namely some politicians or opinion-makers with a conservative past might be switching to a more progressive leanings in their mature years. I cannot name many off the top of my heads, and actually none in Italy. In any case, their journey enjoys far lesser visibility than their left-to-right counterparts. In fact, being perceived as “traitors” by their fellow conservatives, they are usually quickly disposed of (politically speaking, goes without saying).

4 Responses to “Changes of heart”

  1. pablo Says:

    I don’t know if you read French, Massimo, but you might be interested by the book entitled “Lettre ouverte à ceux qui sont passés du col Mao au Rotary”

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Thank you, Pablo — I can read French a little, it sounds like I should check it out.
      Who knows, maybe instead of Montanelli I should have quoted Churchill:
      “Any man under 30 who is not a liberal has no heart, any man over 30 who is not a conservative has no brain.” 🙂

  2. Ian Says:

    Most Canadian politics reeks of opportunism too. Just look at the BC election with the NDP moving right and the Liberals (which are actually centre right) promoting a carbon tax! Federally we have the Liberals moving right, the Conservatives left and the NDP just looking for a few more votes.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Ian, some of that I am willing to tolerate. First of all, we are not talking values, vision, long-term goals, but rather short-term political strategy — that gets dirty, we all know that, it is all about quid pro quo. Secondly, it is done by parties, not by individuals (there is a difference, in my opinion).
      What bothers me is when individuals jump onto another bandwagon, and recycle themselves for the opposite of what they were until not so long before. I am sorry but to me, you were wrong once, chances are you are wrong now too…

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